Doug Racine On Human Services Issues: 'Vermont Is Not An Island'

Apr 7, 2015

Doug Racine spent more than 30 years in state government, most recently as the secretary of the Agency of Human Services. After several high-profile issues involving the Agency of Human Services, Gov. Shumlin removed Racine from his position in the summer of 2014. Now, Racine works with the American Public Human Services Association in Washington, D.C., and reaches out to newly appointed human services leaders in other states to help them navigate the challenges of running such an agency.

Racine joined Vermont Edition to talk about his recent work and thoughts on the child protection bill making its way through the Vermont Legislature.

In his new position, Racine says he’s finding that many human services leaders in other states are facing the same issues that he dealt with in Vermont, including major tragedies. “Its not unusual to see these things happen,” he says. “But they are also looking for better ways to provide services to families … trying to better integrate services around families, to help families be stronger and better protect their children.”

Other states face technology downfalls, says Racine, and are working to modernize their systems. “And then they are dealing with budget issues and increasing poverty and homelessness. Vermont is not an island, Vermont is very much part of the national scene,” he says. Part of Racine’s job is to help these leaders be effective in dealing with these issues they face on a daily basis.

Where does he start? “By talking about defining where they want to go,” says Racine. He explains that most of the new CEOs (they call all the leaders CEOs, regardless of title) he works with start in the middle of the legislative session and don’t have a moment to catch their breath until the session is over. “And that’s when … I can be the most helpful,” says Racine. “If all you’re trying to do is keep your head above water and dealing with the crises of the day, whether they are internal or external, you never figure out where you want to go.”

"If all you're trying to do is keep your head above water and dealing with the crises of the day, whether they are internal or external, you never figure out where you want to go." - Doug Racine

Racine says while he was secretary of the Agency of Human Services in Vermont, he focused on integrating services, which he sees other leaders trying to do as well. “So they are really working in trying to get out of just service delivery … and move to building plans around families to help them get ahead,” says Racine.

"They are dealing with budget issues and increasing poverty and homelessness. Vermont is not an island, Vermont is very much part of the national scene."

One piece of advice he gives from first-hand experience is making sure the leaders are aware of everyone around them and focus on building relationships. “It’s not only your staff and the people who are working for you, obviously it’s the governor’s office … the various community partners that in human services every state works with, advocacy groups, media and really focusing on your relationships,” he explains.

Racine has been following a child protection bill in the Vermont legislature. The bill, which has passed the Senate and is now in the House Human Services Committee, includes a provision that would allow criminal charges for a person who is in the position to recognize when a child is being abused or neglected and fails to do so. “I happen to believe that it would not be particularly helpful, [especially] when the Legislation that has passed the Senate does not deal with the number one issue that the various reviews pointed at, and that was staffing levels and case loads, the number of families each individual social worker has,” says Racine. “You have to recognize that these are intense personal interactions … you really need to have enough social workers to work with the families and see them often enough to understand what’s going on with that family.”

"You have to recognize that these are intense personal interactions ... you really need to have enough social workers to work with the families and see them often enough to understand what's going on with that family."

Racine says that although DCF hired several new positions in the fall of 2014, the caseloads are actually higher than they were at this time last year, when two deaths occurred. “The fact is, we’ve seen a major increase in the number of children coming into custody; we’ve seen a major increase in the number of reports to DCF of suspected abuse and neglect, all of which require investigation,” says Racine. Along with this, Racine says that there is an increase in drug abuse problems, which he says played a part in at least one of the deaths last year.

"Where is the importance of children on the agenda there?"

“I think the money is there,” says Racine. “If it’s a priority it should be there.” He points out that the Legislature is finding money to clean up Lake Champlain, help with the Medicaid cost shift and create jobs, all of which Racine notes are important. “But where is the importance of children on the agenda there? This is a year old now, and perhaps its fading from memory, but I hope they will focus on what did happen and why it did happen … if they aren’t addressing the number one issue, [staffing], I think they are failing Vermont’s kids.